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Momentum Machine

Science Snack
Momentum Machine
Speed up your spin.
Momentum Machine
Speed up your spin.

You’ve probably seen an ice skater spinning on the tip of one skate suddenly start to spin dramatically faster. A diver or gymnast may also suddenly flip or twist much faster. This speeded-up rotation results from a sudden redistribution of mass. You can make yourself suddenly spin faster while sitting in a rotating chair.

Tools and Materials
  • A rotating stool or chair
  • Two heavy objects (two 2-liter plastic bottles full of water or soda work well, but two 1-gallon plastic milk jugs full of water or milk are even better; the type of mass used is not critical, but it's best to use the heaviest masses you can hold at arm’s length)
  • A partner

None needed.

To Do and Notice

Sit in a chair with one of the masses in each hand and your arms outstretched.

Have your partner start rotating you slowly, then have that person let go and move away as the chair continues to turn.

Quickly pull the masses in towards your body and notice that you rotate faster.

What's Going On?

Newton found that an object in motion tends to remain in motion, in a straight line and at a constant speed, unless it is acted upon by a net force. Today, we call this observation the law of conservation of momentum. The momentum of an object is the product of its mass and its velocity.

There is an equivalent law for rotating objects. A rotating object tends to remain rotating with a constant angular momentum unless it is acted upon by an outside twisting force. The definition of angular momentum is more complex than that of linear momentum. Angular momentum is the product of two quantities known as angular velocity and moment of inertia. Angular velocity is merely velocity measured in degrees, or radians-per-second, rather than meters-per-second.

Moment of inertia depends on both the mass of an object and on how that mass is distributed. The farther from the axis of rotation the mass is located, the larger the moment of inertia. So your moment of inertia is smaller when your arms are held at your sides and larger when your arms are extended straight out.

If the motion of a rotating system is not affected by an outside twisting force, then angular momentum is conserved for this system, which means that the angular momentum stays the same.

A person sitting on a rotating chair or stool approximates a system in which angular momentum is conserved. The friction of the bearings on the chair stem serves as an outside twisting force, but this force is usually fairly low for such chairs. Because angular momentum is conserved, the product of angular velocity and moment of inertia must remain constant. This means that if one of these factors is increased, the other must decrease, and vice versa. If you’re initially rotating with your arms outstretched, then when you draw your arms inward, your moment of inertia decreases. This means that your angular velocity must increase, and you spin faster.

The conservation of angular momentum explains why ice skaters start to spin faster when they suddenly draw their arms inward, or why divers or gymnasts who decrease their moment of inertia by going into the tuck position start to flip or twist at a faster rate.

Going Further

One method dancers and skaters use to avoid getting dizzy when they spin is called spotting. As they begin spinning, they pick an object a fair distance away, look directly at it for as long as they can, and turn their head only when they have to, finding that same object again as they come back around. If you watch someone doing this, you can see that the person’s body turns, and then the head follows, whipping around to find the object being spotted once again.

Your body senses balance and motion through the vestibular system, which is part of your inner ear. There, hair-like sensors react to the sloshing of surrounding fluid, which gives your brain information about your orientation with respect to gravity. The technique of spotting minimizes continuous motion of the head and gives that sloshing fluid a moment to settle down before it’s set moving again. Try a gentle spin with and without spotting (preferably somewhere near a handy chair) and see how well it works for you.